HTC leaving bootloaders unlocked and what it means for you

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: May 26, 2011

One of the biggest selling points of Android has always been the ability to hack and mod devices to no end. More recently, however, that has become harder and harder to do. Manufacturers have been cracking down and creating all sorts of hoops for developers to jump through before modding of any real degree is possible.

A prime example of this is with the Droid X. The popular Droid device before it, the original Moto Droid on Verizon, was a device with a huge developer following which yielded quite an impressive amount of hacks and mods available. Seeing as the Droid X came with a larger screen, better camera and a faster processor, the hype around the device's launch was rather high. But that hype fizzled rather quickly when we learned it would be coming to market with a locked down bootloader. This essentially meant that development for the Droid X would be much slower and less fun-filled that its predecessor.

If you've paid any attention to news surrounding Motorola and HTC lately, it's very likely you've heard the term "locked bootloader" before. But what does it mean exactly? What is a locked bootloader?

The bootloader itself is the code that runs before the operating system and tells the phone how to boot and how to find the system kernel. In layman's terms, without this, your phone would not boot (hence the name) and custom ROMs would not be possible. When the bootloader is locked or encrypted, it makes it very difficult to flash a custom recovery onto your device.

As I went over before, the custom recovery is essential for flashing custom ROMs, creating and restoring backup images and much more. Of course, developers have created bootstrap utilities that operate as workarounds and run custom recoveries, and these methods work. But just as they sound, they are tedious and run a higher risk of turning your phone into a very pretty and expensive paperweight. Hacking a phone with a locked bootloader can become quite the chore, instead of being the fun activity it should be.

In short, if you are a customer that plans on hacking and modding and Android device frequently and with ease, you probably want to steer clear of phones with locked bootloaders as best you can. Lately, that has been an increasingly hard thing to do. Much to our surprise, we just received news tonight that ever-popular HTC has reviewed their bootloader policies and decided to leave them unlocked going forward. Finally, a manufacturer has heard the cries of the millions of Android devs and users and actually responded.

But what does this mean for you, the end user? Basically, we can expect the opposite of everything mentioned above. With unlocked bootloaders, HTC phones will be much easier to hack. Developers will be able to dive right into their work rather than having to mess with workarounds and forcing users to use more dangerous methods of modding their devices.

You may recall that the XOOM was released with an easily unlockable bootloader. After unlocking, rooting the device took a whopping five minutes and voilà! I had total control over my tablet in a matter of minutes.

Although I'll argue that their phones have started to grow stale as of late, listening to the voice of their millions of users earns HTC some serious brownie points in my book. And I'm sure this will only further their ever-increasing popularity in the Android camp. I do, however, find it rather strange that only after releasing some of the most locked down Android devices to date does the Taiwanese company randomly decide to reconsider their policies and unlock those precious bootloaders. Either way, you rock, HTC.

So, who's next? ... Motorola? ... Samsung?